The shortlist for the second annual Barbellion Prize was announced earlier this month. I had already read one of the books, and publishers have kindly sent me two of the others for review. Still in the running this year are two novels, a poetry collection and a memoir (you can read a bit more about the longlist here).
Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (2021)
Barokka is an Indonesian poet and performance artist based in London. The topics of her second collection include chronic pain, the oppression of women, and the environmental crisis. While she’s distressed at the exploitation of nature, she sprinkles in humanist reminders of Indigenous peoples whose needs should also be valued. For instance, in the title poem, whose points of reference range from King Kong to palm oil plantations, she acknowledges that orangutans must be saved, but that people are also suffering in her native Indonesia. It’s a subtle plea for balanced consideration.
An early sequence about a visit to a Natural History Museum exemplifies the blend of themes. From her wheelchair, the poet ponders “the event” that killed the dinosaurs and human bias towards fellow vertebrates. Why can’t we appreciate a tiger for its own sake rather than its cultural and metaphorical associations? she asks in the following poem.
Medical realities aren’t as prominent as in some nominees – nowhere is it made clear what condition Okka has – but illness haunts certain lines: “my pills lie as armor with so many / glasses of water, upright and tensile / to save life against terrors by way / of circulatory relief” (from “on lying down, apocalyptic”). Concern about the environment also tips over into the apocalyptic in “situation report” and below:
“Fence and Repetition” sets out a palindrome of lines, and later on there are a golden shovel and an abecedarian, with tips of the hat to other poets. This more formal verse is in contrast with looser poems lacking capitalization or articles; in places the language even reads like pidgin. I found the phrasing unusual, forcing close attention to what’s actually going on. This wasn’t generally my cup of tea, but makes a striking entry on this year’s shortlist, and was a good chance to add my first Indonesian writer to my internal library.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (2021)
This is a delicate novella about the bond between a grandmother and her eight-year-old granddaughter, who is deaf. After the death of the girl’s mother, Grandmother has been her primary guardian. She raises her on Irish legends and a love of nature, especially their local trees. They mourn when they see hedgerows needlessly flailed, and the girl often asks what her grandmother hears the trees saying. Because Grandmother narrates in the form of journal entries, there is dramatic irony between what readers learn and what she is not telling the little girl; we ache to think about what might happen for her in the future.
Yet Buckle takes care not to let the mood get too sombre, even though there is disquiet aplenty: empty housing blocks from the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, rage at the stereotypes and ableism that the granddaughter faces, and the darkness of the myths surrounding the peat bogs and those who drown. This is mostly thanks to the lyrical writing wrapped around the six months or so of the action. Focusing on the relationship between these two, a lot of what happens is quiet and seasonal, from a picnic in the park to preparations for Christmas, but there is also a sign language class that introduces some other characters.
At points I found the prose too thick – it’s rare for me to come across vocabulary I don’t know and, especially in such a short book, terms like “ombrogenous mires,” “chironomy” and “sestude” stood out, not necessarily in a good way. But, overall, I enjoyed this study of other forms of communication – with hands, in writing, between humans and more-than-human nature, and perhaps even beyond the grave.
A favourite passage:
We struggle to hear in our household. Age, degeneration, aural complications and congenital conditions. Ignorance. We have confusing discussions, mistaken arrangements, and fights over hearing aid batteries. Plus, the convenience of not hearing when it suits us. Now we are trying to listen, to each other, and to trees. There is so much that we have never heard, so little time to hear it.
With thanks to Époque Press for the free copy for review.
The other two books on the shortlist are:
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
My TLS review excerpt: Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons.
Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”
I haven’t had a chance to read Duck Feet, so it’s hard to make any predictions about the winner. Last year a memoir by a woman won, so I’m not sure A Still Life will win, even though it’s my clear favourite of the three I’ve read. Perhaps it will be a novel this year?
The Barbellion Prize, awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability,” will be announced on 12 February.
Do any of the shortlisted books appeal to you?
I haven’t done much dipping into 2020 releases yet, but I do have two that I would highly recommend to pretty much anyone, plus some more that are also worth highlighting.
My top recommendations (so far) for 2020:
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
[Coming on January 21st from Tinder Press (UK) / Flatiron Books (USA)]
You’ve most likely already heard of this novel about the plight of migrants crossing the U.S. border in search of a better life. What’s interesting is that the main characters are not your typical border crossers: Lydia was a middle-class Acapulco bookshop owner whose journalist husband was murdered for his pieces exposing the local drug cartel. She and her eight-year-old son, Luca, know that the cartel is after them, too, and its informers are everywhere. They join Central American migrants in hopping onto La Bestia, a dangerous freight train network running the length of Mexico. Their fellow travelers’ histories reveal the traumatic situations migrants leave and the hazards they face along the way. Cummins alternates between the compelling perspectives of Lydia and Luca, and the suspense is unrelenting. It feels current and crucial. (My full review will be in Issue 491 of Stylist magazine, so if you are in London or another city that hands it out and can pick up a copy, keep an eye out!)
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland
[Coming on March 3rd from Abrams Press (USA)]
A terrific follow-up to one of my runners-up from last year, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I learned that “non-paternity events” such as Shapiro experienced are not as uncommon as you might think. Copeland spoke to scientists, DNA testing companies, and some 400 ordinary people who sent off saliva samples to get their DNA profile and, in many cases, received results they were never expecting. There are stories of secret second families, of people who didn’t find out they were adopted until midlife, and of babies switched at birth. We’ve come a long way since the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through reams of microfilm and wait months or years to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can turn up missing relatives within a matter of days. But there are a lot of troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. It’s a timely and thought-provoking book, written with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
Also of note (in release date order):
Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney: Horse trainer Gaffney has volunteered at the Delancey Street Foundation’s New Mexico ranch, an alternative prison for drug offenders, for six years. She chronicles how feral horses and humans can help each other heal. Great for fans of Cheryl Strayed. (February 4, W.W. Norton)
Survival Is a Style: Poems by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read; I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness and irony, yet a flame of faith remains. Really interesting phrasing and vocabulary here. (February 4, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein: Another in a growing number of hard-hitting books about female pain. Specifically, Olstein has chronic migraines. In these essays she ranges from ancient philosophy to recent television in her references, and from lists of symptoms to poetic descriptions in her format. A little rambly, but stylish nonetheless. (March 4, Bellevue Literary Press)
My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden by Meir Shalev: The Israeli novelist tells of how he took a derelict garden in the Jezreel Valley and made it thrive. He blends botanical knowledge with Jewish folklore. I particularly enjoyed his good-natured feud against his local mole rats. Gentle and charming. (March 31, Shocken)
The Alekizou and His Terrible Library Plot! by Nancy Turgeon: The Alekizou can’t read! Jealous of the fun he sees children having at the library, he breaks in and steals all the vowels. Without them, books and speech don’t make sense. Luckily, the children know sign language and use it to create replacement letters. A fun picture book with rhymes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, this also teaches children vowels and basic signing. (April 6, CrissCross AppleSauce)
With thanks to the publisher for the free PDF copy for review.
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui: A personal history with swimming, but also a wide-ranging study of humans’ relationship with the water – as a source of food, exercise, healing, competition and enjoyment. Tsui meets scientists, coaches, Olympians and record holders, and recounts some hard-to-believe survival tales. (April 14, Algonquin Books)